Raised by Strangers in the Aftermath of War

From The Wall Street Journal:

Claude Monet wrote that “without the fog, London wouldn’t be a beautiful city,” and one suspects that Michael Ondaatje agrees with him. Mr. Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight” . . .  is a thoroughly fogbound book about childhood and espionage in postwar Britain that feels its way forward with little sense of direction, creating intrigue and allure from the “mysterious cloak”—to borrow again from Monet—that covers and conceals its story.

That story begins by looking back to 1945, when 14-year-old Nathaniel Williams and his older sister, Rachel, learn that their parents are moving from London to Singapore for a year. The children are left under the supervision of a lodger in their house, an enigma they have nicknamed the Moth for his shy, fluttery movements. But not long after the departures, Rachel finds, hidden in the basement, the trunk that her mother packed and pretended to take overseas. She has not gone to Asia at all, they discover (though apparently their father, a traumatized veteran, has), but all that the Moth will tell them of her disappearance is that she “is away. Doing something important.”

“We grew up protected by the arms of strangers,” Nathaniel, the book’s narrator, recalls. Along with the Moth, a gruff former boxer known as the Darter becomes a fixture in the house, eventually apprenticing Nathaniel in the illegal trades he’s cornered since the end of the war. Some of the most strange and memorable passages in “Warlight” take place at night on a barge in remote tributaries of the Thames, where the Darter and Nathaniel are smuggling greyhounds as part of a dog-racing racket.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Authors Beware: Amazon Gets Medieval on Paid and Traded Reviews

From author Anne R. Allen:

My inbox has been bursting with unsolicited emails for the past few weeks. I must be on a new list of “easy prey” circulating in the the author-scamming community.

. . . .

These emails will “analyze” the Amazon buy page of one of my books—always assuming I’ve only written the one—mansplaining how I’m too stupid to know it’s overpriced, too short, has a bad cover, a bad sales rank (even when it’s a bestseller) and of course, has an insufficient number of reviews.

. . . .

The emailing creeps have no idea I’m with a small press, and they’re actually dissing my publisher. But I can imagine this approach is pretty effective on self-publishers, especially relative newbies. Some judgey stranger offering unpleasant criticism in your morning email can shake an author’s confidence.

And they’re counting on that. Once you’re feeling vulnerable, they pitch bogus or wildly overpriced services, “break into Hollywood” scams, worthless interviews, and that old warhorse, paid Amazon reviews.

. . . .

But when I started to research the paid review business this week, I ran into a bunch of new dramas and draconian changes. So I decided to devote this post to the latest Amazon review horrors.

DO NOT Pay for Amazon Customer Reviews!

One email notified me that I’d failed to get “enough” reviews on my new Author Blog Book. But I could get 25 Amazon reviews from him for only $900!

Dude, here’s the reason many of us “fail” to get tons of Amazon reviews anymore: scammy review-sellers like you.

This is because Amazon fights paid review violations with robots, which are wrong more often than not. And they’re scaring off real reviewers.

In 2016, the Zon changed their TOS to require reviewers to be Amazon customers and forbid any payment—including free products or gift cards—to reviewers of anything other than books. (Book reviewers can review free books as long as they disclose.) This was supposed to crack down on the rampant gaming of Amazon’s review system. For more, see my 2016 post on Amazon’s New Review Rules.

. . . .

A review on a blog is useful, and can be quoted in Amazon’s “editorial review” section, which often has more clout with readers.

But Amazon has recently made more draconian changes. The guidelines have been modified again, and so have the punishments.

It used to be that customers violating Amazon’s TOS were banned from SELLING on Amazon, but the new policy bans them from BUYING.

Your account will be deleted. No warning. No explanations.

. . . .

Amazon’s Review Police-Bots Deleted “Over a Million” Innocent Customers’ Accounts this Month.

Amazon’s latest police-bots are out for blood: if they even suspect you of breaking the rules, your account gets deleted with no warning.

. . . .

The victims got this explanation:

“The account has been deleted for one or both of the following reasons.

Your reviews were posted in exchange for compensation, such as gift cards to purchase the product, product refunds, review swaps, or free or discounted products, and/or Your account was used for commercial purposes.”

. . . .

The most recent crackdown doesn’t only involve draconian punishments for suspected paid reviewers.

Amazon is also banning reviewers from posting in more than one Amazon store. It used to be reviews could be posted in the US Amazon store as well as Canada, UK, Australia, etc., so a UK reviewer could also post a review on Amazon.com, where it had a potential to increase a book’s sales and get it into Bookbub and other newsletters.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen

PG says, among other things, the history of Amazon has been typified by an ongoing battle between con men/con women and Amazon. The battle has often been fought in the reviews section.

PG doesn’t blame Amazon for working hard to keep their reviews legitimate and clean. Online customers are among the flightiest of creatures and can click to competitors on the slightest provocation. As anyone who has watched human activities online for very long understands, herd behavior is a real phenomenon and all sorts of seemingly minor problems or lurid stories can startle large numbers of purchasers off to Walmart or Costco.

In the battle between Seattle and Evil, innocent bystanders can be digitally injured.

An estimated three billion people use the internet today. The number and variety of online cons is impossible to calculate and Amazon is likely to see a good portion of those cons, so they have reasons to be paranoid.

That said, it is imperative for Amazon to treat its suppliers well. Just as customers can move elsewhere, so can suppliers. If PG were running the world, there would be more well-designed online indie-friendly bookstores.

Would The World Be Better Off Without Book Reviews And Ratings?

From No Shelf Required:

Q: What is your ideal kind of online library and book store? 
A: The kind without comments, reviews and ratings. The kind that only gives useful descriptions and context.

Someone asked me recently to describe an ideal app for reading (inside the app: a mix of ebooks, magazines and newspapers), and I found myself describing a very quiet virtual place, full of knowledge and information, without all the white noise. No Comments section. No opinions. No venom.

This led to another question: So you would not allow readers to express their thoughts online? My answer: I want readers to write and express their own original thoughts by publishing their own works (if they so choose), after being inspired or motivated by reading the thoughts of others. But I would like us all to say and write less about other people’s creation, especially since our inherent need (clearly) is to dislike it at least as much as to praise it. It’s become a nasty race. Everything revolves around liking, rating, heart-ing books online. And we must realize it’s hurting more than helping a large number of writers out there.

The value (and the point) of what we create (whether for entertainment or education) is that it will not appeal to every person at every given moment. The writer owes the reader nothing (I’m referring here only to the process of reading). It isn’t the writer’s responsibility to please every reader’s imagination and taste. It is the reader’s responsibility, however, to remain aware of that.

. . . .

This idea that we can ‘decide’ for others has been a dominant force in the publishing and library industry for centuries. Ask yourself next time you walk into your local library or bookstore: are the books awaiting me there (in any format) all the great books out there for me to discover and be inspired by?

. . . .

However, there is no ‘perfect’ combination. A lot of good writing falls through the cracks. It’s been a faulty process for centuries, although, to be fair, a human one. Today, we are turning a corner whether we like it or not. I, for one, like it. We are leveling the playing field, which means more than ever, people are writing and publishing. I’m not suggesting we are all equally good at writing and that everything published will find readership, but I am stating that the process of ‘rating’ literature and ‘quantifying’ a book’s value via ratings (like those we see on Goodreads and Amazon) is often subjective and driven by interests, personal and professional.

Which brings me to book critics and book reviewers. We don’t need them the way we used to (note to the reader: I was a book review editor for ten years). In an evolved society, we (will) think for ourselves more. We (will) exchange knowledge and information without the ‘influence’ part. We (will) ‘filter’ on our own.

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG notes that no one forces a reader to pay attention to reviews and ratings.

For some of his purchases, ratings and reviews are very helpful for PG. For others, they’re superfluous.

In a world where nothing is new or innovative, people would probably pay much less attention to reviews. PG has no problems shopping for fruits and vegetables without any reviews or star ratings next to the carrots.

However, each book is new. Absent plagiarism, no one has written or read that particular book before. A great many readers want to devote their limited reading time (and book budget) to new books they will enjoy. Very few people are happy when they spend money on a book they end up hating after 50 pages.

Some might rationalize the time spent on a bad book as some sort of learning experience that broadens the reader’s outlook or something – an “Eat your spinach – all of it. It’s good for you” view of the world. Reading a terrible book will broaden your outlook by exposing you to a person who can’t write but may have other undiscovered and unexposed talents or experiences you can learn from.

If someone is untalented at writing but talented at playing the lute, PG would much rather be exposed to that person through his/her lute performances. If one likes to enjoy people at their best and finds inspiration and uplift in the works of great artists, the lutist is eminently preferable to a failed novelist.

PG regards time spent reading a book that’s not well-written as pretty much wasted when it could have been used for reading something he enjoyed or learned from.

From a practical standpoint, reviews and ratings are usually the most potent form of marketing for books. That’s the reason authors work hard to solicit good reviews. If reviews weren’t a good way to sell books, smart authors would spend their time somewhere else.

As far as an online library and bookstore providing only “useful descriptions” as described in the OP, a description like “I hated the book and couldn’t finish it” can be among the most useful descriptions provided to a prospective purchaser, particularly when 50 other people usefully describe the book in the same way.

In Praise of Negative Reviews

From The Baffler:

“Startlingly Smart,” “remarkable,” “endlessly interesting,” “delicious.” Such are the adulatory adjectives scattered through the pages of the book review section in one of America’s leading newspapers. The praise is poignant, particularly if one happens to be the author, hoping for the kind of testimonial that will drive sales. Waiting for the critic’s verdict used to be a moment of high anxiety, but there’s not so much to worry about anymore. The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.

It is a pitiable present, this one that celebrates the enfeebling of literary criticism, but we were warned of it. Elizabeth Hardwick, that Cassandra of criticism, predicted it five decades ago, when she penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s magazine.

. . . .

In Hardwick’s world reviewers and critics were feared as “persons of dangerous acerbity” who were “cruel to youth” and (often out of jealousy) blind to the freshness and importance of new work. Hardwick thought this an unfair estimation, but she would have found what exists now more repugnant. The reviewers at work now are rather the opposite, copywriters whose task it is to arrange the book in a bouquet of Wikipedia-blooming literary references.

. . . .

Hardwick herself underscored this when she pointed a finger at the “torpor,” the “faint dissension” and “minimal style” that had infected the book review in her time. What’s new is that this faint style has developed a politics or an ethics that gives non-judgment in the book review a high-minded justification. Per its pronouncements, all reviewers (and readers) must check their biases and privilege prior to engaging with a text.

It is a lovely sounding idea, particularly in its attempt to ground the extinction of the negative review in a commitment to fairness and equality. Kristina Marie Darling lays out the rest in her recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Readerly Privilege and Textual Violence: An Ethics of Engagement.” Darling, who is white, and was once a “younger female contingent laborer who more than likely qualified for food stamps,” says textual violence “takes many forms,” the most egregious occurring when “the reader makes inferences that extend beyond the work as it appears on the page.” In the example she offers, a reviewer writing for The Rumpus about a book of autobiographical essays dares to wonder whether the author’s excessively picky eating (showcased in the book) may point to an eating disorder. There it is, then: that sin of considering the content in relation to one’s own views. It is a no-can-do for Darling, who, after going through several similar iterations, concludes with an admonition: “reviewers are not arbiters of taste,” she scolds, but rather “ushers in a room full of empty chairs.”

It’s a sad demotion of the book reviewer. Books are compendiums of ideas and experiences, a comment on the world in which they exist, a template as to how a different one, for better or worse, may be imagined. Why set up strict boundaries to criticism, such that nothing short of a thoroughly purified, bleached, and ironed, scolded and warned individual dares take up the task? Why require your reviewers to offer only vapid and overblown praise of whatever they find between the pages?

This new ethic of book reviewing is offered up to protect and assist the unprivileged and the marginalized; and, yes, those whose context and cultures may not be easily relatable may require a bit of extra work from the reader. Yet from there the anti-negative book review cadre argues for limitations on all book reviews. Writing a critical review that dares wonder about the writer’s biography, that goes beyond the page into the suggested and imputed, is not only “textual violence” but a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.

Link to the rest at The Baffler

PG isn’t certain whether he is part of a small minority, but he constantly “makes inferences that extend beyond the work as it appears on the page.” His personal reactions to the book he is reading are part of his enjoyment of the book. If anyone is interested, he’s happy to talk about those reactions.

While the OP does not think “new ethic of book reviewing” is a good idea, if this ethic develops into any sort of norm for professional or semi-professional reviewers, perhaps Amazon reviews will be the only ones that are truly honest.

On Negative Book Reviews

The Millions:

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

. . . .

A negative review is never pleasant, but PW reviews have a particularly heart-stopping quality for purely financial reasons: there’s a moment when it dawns on you, as you’re reading all about how your book’s clumsy, lukewarm, bland, awkwardly constructed, and stocked with characters who resemble cardboard cutouts, that this thing’s going to appear on your Amazon, Powells, and Barnes & Noble pages. Which is, practically speaking, frankly kind of a drag when you’re trying to move units.

But the sting wears off after a day or two, and then the review recedes into the hazy territory of tedious-things-that-must-occasionally-be-managed, like the laundry and grocery shopping. The major bookselling e-commerce sites can be persuaded to add other reviews to their pages, and positive customer reviews help balance PW’s tone. I’ve heard of tragically sensitive types who get a bad review and spend the next week in bed, but that kind of thing’s hard to pull off when you’ve got a day job and I find that bad reviews are usually not particularly agonizing once the initial shock wears off. Especially given that PW reviews are anonymous, and after fifteen years on the Internet I have a hard time taking anonymous snark very seriously.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG notes that the OP was written in 2011, but suspects that, for most authors, the experience hasn’t changed.

Is There a Connection Between Bad Grammar and Negative Online Reviews?

From Priceonomics:

The internet is full of people giving their opinion on things. From blogs to forums to social media, the internet is a tool that empowers people to share what they think. Most of the time, these posts are not particularly useful (and sometimes even harmful), but for e-commerce sites, user reviews have been revolutionary.

Right now, there are millions of products available to purchase online. Despite never seeing the product or knowing the specific seller, you can make a well-informed decision before buying just by reading the experiences of other people who already purchased them. Academic evidence agrees. Studies show that reviews matter for customer decision making.

But not all reviews are created equal. Some are thorough and provide details on a specific product feature, while others are vague and unintelligible gibberish. Research shows users put a higher value on well-written reviews. Websites like Amazon take this into account by letting you rate whether a review is helpful or not.

Reading through so many reviews ourselves got us thinking, is the quality of writing (spelling, grammar, etc.) markedly different between positive and negative reviews?

. . . .

[W]e compiled 100,000 reviews from thousands of different products. To make sure our data inputs were standardized, we specifically used reviews that had both a star rating (to help us determine if a review was positive or negative) and a written review. On this data, we completed a series of analyses that assessed three aspects of writing quality:

  1. Length of review
  2. Spelling errors
  3. Improper use of grammar

According to our data, negative reviews have a higher rate of misspelled words and a higher rate of incorrectly used apostrophes. They tend to be longer and have more details as well. Five-star reviews typically are shorter and often don’t include punctuation.

. . . .

From our findings, we can say that when people are writing negative reviews, they create longer and more error-filled prose than those who are sharing positive reviews.

. . . .

The next measure on our rubric of writing quality is spelling. Using a spell checker, we can flag all misspellings contained in our review text.

Before evaluating differences between positive and negative reviews, we want to get a sense of spelling aptitude in the overall dataset. The following table shows what proportion of our product reviews contain spelling errors and how many.

. . . .

From our analysis, we showed that five-star reviews have the lowest incidence of spelling errors and most grammar errors. One-star reviews had the most spelling errors, and more negative reviews tended to perform worse across grammar metrics. Still, positive reviews also have errors, as we saw with four-star reviews with apostrophes and five-star reviews with an end of sentence punctuation. Review length could be a factor contributing to the differences in the kinds of errors we see between positive and negative reviews.

Link to the rest at Priceonomics

PG suspects he’s not the only one who performs subconscious language analysis when he considers whether he’s going to give much weight to the reviewer’s opinion.

The Novelist’s Complicity

From The New York Review of Books:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a word of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel that many regard as one of the finest literary works of the twentieth century. It’s certainly one of the most popular. The words are uttered by Nick Carraway, the narrator, through whom the entire story is told. His father’s advice is to refrain from judging people because not everyone has had the advantages he has had. But what of those who had all the same advantages and then some, the people who make up Carraway’s milieu in the novel? Carraway proceeds to condemn them, though perhaps pulling his punches when it comes to the eponymous hero.

No effort at putting Fitzgerald’s novel on screen has ever been entirely successful, certainly not in terms of fidelity to his vision. The medium of film has a major obstacle to overcome if it is to provide a faithful rendering of a first-person novel, such as the The Great Gatsby: in general, film cameras show everything in the third person, not from the vantage point of a particular character but from a stance separated from any consciousness.

. . . .

What I’m getting at with all this detail is that there’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

The imminent death of the novel has been announced every year for as long as I can remember.

. . . .

In 2009, the American novelist Philip Roth predicted that within twenty-five years the readership of novels would amount to a cult. “I think people will always be reading them,” he said in an interview, “but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”

Roth’s prognosis has some data behind it. While the publishing industry might be thriving, buoyed up by cookbooks, self-help manuals and all manner of non-fiction, fiction sales have fallen by 23 percent over the past five years. In most industries, this would raise alarm bells.

Good evidence-based research explaining why fiction sales have fallen so much seems to be lacking, but this hasn’t stopped speculation. The attention spans of readers, it’s said, is now trained for tweets, Facebook posts, and information in bitesize morsels. Roth suggested as much in his interview. “To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading,” he said. “If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”

. . . .

Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?

And if television can reach a wider audience than novels ever did, isn’t the goal of broadening empathy better served by those superbly well-written TV dramas?

. . . .

[T]here may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book. Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction.

Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing.

. . . .

A writer—I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me—suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.” The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG suggests “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has been happening for a very long time (perhaps more slowly in Britain and even more slowly on BBC Radio 4, where the OP originated).

However, “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has certainly not been common everywhere in the world.

Under the general direction of Joseph Stalin, the arbitration of literary taste lacked quite a bit of democratization. For example, per Wikipedia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.

The State Committee for Publishing, (Goskomizdat to its fans) was an enthusiastic arbiter of literary taste in Soviet Russia. PG is not certain whether the literary critics employed by Goskomizdat were ever known to say, “This is a great book even though I didn’t like it” or if their visceral reaction to a book played any role in deciding which author was referred to the Checka or not.

When it comes to deciding what books are available for people to read at reasonable prices, PG is pretty much a First Amendment fundamentalist. If one agrees with a particular literary critic or critics employed by large media corporations in general, (Hallelujah, sister!) let literary criticism thrive. If one prefers synthesizing the opinions of those sharing their thoughts on Goodreads, consulting book reviews in the maw of Amazon itself or (gasp) checking star ratings, illustre stelle vobis.

PG suggests arbitration and literary taste make poor bedfellows. But he could be fundamentally wrong.

Online reviews have a major trust problem

From Mashable:

The internet and the explosion of smartphone ownership have made the opinions of anyone with an internet connection an indispensable part of almost every consumer decision. Whether you’re in the market for a new car, wandering into a coffee shop, or browsing store aisles, there’s a good chance you might weigh the collective wisdom of the crowd.

Unfortunately, online reviews are a mess. They’re still the first stop for consumers looking to buy stuff, but also the scene of an ongoing battle between conflicted platforms, aggressive businesses, and angry customers.

Businesses know this, and they’re still working to game the system. From mattress startup Casper to online travel site TripAdvisor, plenty of companies have been found to be manipulating reviews.

. . . .

The good news is that people are getting a bit more savvy.

“I do believe that people make their purchases off highly rated products—just as I do—but there is a good deal of skepticism if reviews skew positive with little to no negative commentary,” said Tamar Weinberg, a marketing consultant and author. “I think the concept of ‘is it too good to be true?’ rings loudly in their minds.”

. . . .

Even a simple promoted review that’s clearly marked can tank trust in the site overall.

“What we’ve seen is there were sites that would incentivize reviews,” Kurushko said, “and well-known retail sites would syndicate those reviews, and it just completely destroys trust.”

Link to the rest at Mashable

The 1885 Reviews of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

From The Literary Hub:

“Were Mark Twain’s reputation as a humorist less well founded and established, we might say that this cheap and pernicious stuff is conclusive evidence that its author has no claim to be ranked with Artemus Ward, Sydney Smith, Dean Swift, John Hay, or any other recognized humorist above the grade of the author of that outrageous fiction, Peck’s Bad BoyHuckleberry Finn is the story (told by himself) of a wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy or forty years ago. He runs away from a drunken father in company with a runaway negro. They are joined by a couple of rascally impostors, and the Munchausenlike “adventures” that fill the work are encountered in the course of a raft voyage down the Mississippi. The humor of the work, if it can be called such, depends almost wholly on the scrapes into which the quartet are led by the rascality of the impostors, ‘Huck’s’ lying, the negro’s superstition and fear and on the irreverence which makes parents, guardians and people who are at all good and proper ridiculous. That such stuff should be considered humor is more than a pity. Even the author objects to it being considered literature. But what can be said of a man of Mr. Clemens’s wit, ability and position deliberately imposing upon an unoffending public a piece of careless hackwork in which a few good things are dropped amid a mass of rubbish, and concerning which he finds it necessary to give notice that ‘persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot’?”

The New York World, March 7, 1885

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Mob Rule in the Book World

From The National Review:

American Heart, a young-adult novel to be published in January, is a kind of Huckleberry Handmaid’s Tale, only with Muslims. In a dim dystopian U.S. of the near future that’s been overtaken by a nasty “patriotic” movement, a white girl is oblivious to the burgeoning horror of Muslims being placed in internment camps, but she experiences an awakening and decides to strike out against them to rescue a Muslim immigrant from Iran, who is in hiding and needs to flee the country to save herself. Ho-hum, says the experienced observer. Since 9/11, the Left has been spooking itself with scary tales about how the anti-Muslim Inquisition is going to start any minute now.

So: another attempt to troll conservatives about our supposed persecution of Muslims. Nothing new. When the left-leaning book-industry site Kirkus published a favorable review of the novel, though, it was a gonzo-Left outlook that launched attacks on Kirkus, with denunciation popping up at publishing-chat sites such as Goodreads. Reviewers of the review (most of whom evidently hadn’t read the book in question) insisted that Kirkus’s favorable take on American Heart amounted to inexcusable support for a supposedly abhorrent “white savior” narrative. In other words, the hero of a book about persons of color can’t be white. But if American Heart’s author, Laura Moriarty, had written the book from a person of color’s point of view, that would have been cultural appropriation.

You may not have heard of Kirkus, but it carries influence in the book world because it, and its longtime rival Publishers Weekly, are the established trade publications that run early reviews sparking bad or good buzz months before the book is published. Because the reviews in Kirkus and PW run so early, they carry disproportionate weight. They signal book-review editors (I was one for four years) that certain books are important and worthy of coverage. They signal booksellers which books might be worth ordering by the crate and promoting. A star from Kirkus is like a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert or a “fresh” rating from a Rotten Tomatoes critic. The star is everything. “You got a star in Kirkus!” is a delightful message to hear from one’s book publicist.

. . . .

After publishing that starred review of American Heart and finding itself chastised for it by a small and silly mob, Kirkus did a strange, perhaps unprecedented thing. It backed down. Its editor-in-chief, Claiborne Smith, publicly flogged himself for publishing the review in the first place, saying it “fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity” (though the clarity of the review was not in question), then re-edited the review in hopes of appeasing the Goodreads progressives, making sure now to flag the book as “problematic.” He also took the extraordinary step of removing the star to placate the pitchforks-and-lanterns crowd. I’ve never heard of that happening before in the 84-year history of Kirkus. (Smith declined to answer whether the move was unprecedented.)

“We do not bend to peer pressure or cultural criticism,” Smith told Slate. That is correct: He does not bend in the face of peer pressure or cultural criticism. He crumples in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. He curls up into the fetal position in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. He disintegrates and begs for mercy in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. His action is astonishing, craven, ridiculous. It did not need to be so. Kirkus is a tiger in the book world, or at least a collie. This amounted to surrendering to a squirrel. In the centuries-long tradition of critics and their editors who take it as a given that honest criticism will usually displease someone, and that such displeasure cannot be allowed to alter judgment, the routine thing for Smith to do would have been to shrug.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG posted the OP because it relates to traditional publishing and its marketing and promotion activities. It may also inform decisions indie authors make about marketing, promotion and other aspects of the businesses they operate.

PG understands that The National Review, like Slate, The Huffington Post and other sources of posts on TPV, has a well-known political stance. He also knows that contemporary political disagreements in the US quickly devolve into acrimony and name-calling that result in heat without light.

PG requests that the comments not descend into a left/right political argument.

The internet is full of locations where full-throated political disagreements continue 24/7. It’s not hard to find a place to insult someone who has different beliefs than you have if you’re inclined toward that sort of thing.

HELP! I Don’t Know How to Rate Books!

From Bookriot:

I’ve been thinking about getting another Goodreads account (or two). And it’s not because I’m embarrassed by what I read and want to keep a separate list or because I forgot my password. The reality is I don’t know how to rate books. As I’ve broadened my reading over the last few years, I’ve run into the problem of whether I should rate books by literary value, content, or entertainment value. Perhaps by author intent or perhaps by coincidence, some books put more stock in things like allusions and themes, some focus on making a point, and some are just straight brain candy. What matters most?

Goodreads allows for one overall rating and you can elaborate in a review if you like. You can’t rate a book once by literary value, once by content, and once by entertainment value. I keep my own blog for reviews and I use the single-rating system there, too, with half-step increments. I started keeping track of all the books I read and my thoughts about them well before I realized that there were these different levels at which I could assess a book. A change my system now wouldn’t work for me. Hashtag, sunk costs?

. . . .

So what do we do about books that have significant literary value but bore us to tears (here’s looking at you, Middlemarch)? How do I rate a book that makes a great point but has a prose style I just can’t get behind (I see you, The Beast Is an Animal)?  What about novels that are possibly socially damaging and problematic yet still scratches the escapist itch (hey there, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding)? It gets even more complex when we’re looking at a graphic novel, picture book, or other illustrated piece. How does art factor in?

Link to the rest at Bookriot

How Amazon reviews became the new battlefield of US politics

From The Guardian:

There are stars that twinkle and shine in the firmament and yet others that determine the destiny of authors. In the case of the latter, every author wishes for an Amazon page that is, much like the Coldplay song, “full of stars”. Hillary Clinton, former US presidential candidate, and author of the testily titled What Happened, was not such a fortunate author. A mere day after it was released, Clinton (or, more likely, one of her many publicists) found her book’s Amazon page to be a battleground. Within 24 hours of the book’s release, 1,500 reviews had been posted and – like the American electorate – divided between ardent love and ferocious hatred for the book and its author. The former slathered on five stars, the latter a single, sulky one. The election, it appeared, was being replayed in Amazon reviews.

But while power and strategic string-pulling were unable to turn the election, they did come to Clinton’s rescue in the review wars. The day after the book’s release, Amazon chose to remove nearly 900 reviews from Clinton’s page, a move that brought the book’s rating up from 3.2 stars to a dazzling 4.3. Ever cryptic, Amazon alluded to its “community guidelines” and cited “mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of the many do not drown out the voices of the few” as a reason for the excision. Supporters of Amazon’s move went further: the reviews could not have been legitimate, they opined; so many people could not possibly have read and then loved or hated the book in a single night. One week later, What Happened was averaging five stars, based on more than 1,500 reviews. Only one recourse remained for the Hillary haters: voting up the few remaining one-stars from “verified purchases” as “most helpful”.

Amazon is not always sympathetic to sad sagas of political animus wrecking the review destinies of authors. The story of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is an example. Bray’s book, published by Melville House, happened to be released the Monday after neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to a counter-protestor being run over and killed. This placed Bray’s book right in the middle of President Trump’s blame for “both sides” by likening Antifa to neo-Nazis. Eager to fight, some of the so-called “alt-right” took to Reddit with a screenshot of Bray’s Amazon page and the instruction: “Currently at 3.5 stars. You know what to do.” They did: in no time, the book’s listing was, in the words of its publisher Dennis Johnson, “flooded” with single-star reviews. Johnson complained to Amazon – via the automatic submission forms provided to the non-Clintons of the world – and a few one-star reviews were removed, but at that point there were now about 50 of them. Johnson even sent Amazon a screenshot of the Reddit page, but was still unable to speak to a human representative. The reviews, meanwhile, slowed the book’s sales, claiming that purchasing the book would support violence. In an odd and unlucky irony, the gap in intellectual history that Bray had attempted to address in his book – the US’s inattention to anti-fascist resistance – manufactured the material for its condemnation. A book about fighting evil was characterised as evil.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Marcel Proust paid for reviews praising his work to go into newspapers

From The Guardian:

The French writer Marcel Proust paid for glowing reviews of the first volume of his Remembrance of Things Past to be put into newspapers, letters by the author reveal.

The novelist wrote the notices himself and sent them to be typed up by his publisher “so there is no trace of my handwriting” to distance himself “absolutely from the money that will change hands”.

The letters have come to light with an extremely rare copy of Swann’s Way, which is expected to go for around half a million euros (£438,000) when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in Paris next month.

They make it clear that Proust orchestrated the operation himself from his bed, promising his editor at the publisher Grasset that he would “of course, pay him back in full”.

The wealthy writer paid 300 francs – around £900 today – for a flattering reference to Swann’s Way to appear on the front page of Le Figaro, then – as now – one of France’s leading dailies. He paid a further 660 francs for another much larger summary of a glowing review by a friend of his to similarly appear on the front page of the Journal des Debats.

. . . .

Proust’s desperation for publicity was partly because he was having to pay for the book’s publication himself, experts said. A string of publishing houses had turned it down before Brun persuaded his boss Bernard Grasset to take it in 1913 – but only if the author paid all the costs.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Are reviews worth reading?

This article is written by a software developer and is about reviews of an app he was involved in creating for Dropbox. He read a lot of reviews.

Since book reviews are of continuing interest to most authors, PG was interested to see so many similarities in the behaviors of readers of books and the users of software apps. The OP’s analysis of star ratings from various subgroups of users was particularly intriguing.

PG thought some of this software author’s thoughts might be beneficial to those who write books (which are converted into ebooks which are a component in ereading software programs).

From Medium:

I recently read thousands of reviews about our Dropbox app. Call me crazy, but it was the most riveting thing I’ve read all year. I laughed, I cried, I got warm fuzzies inside.

Why in the world would anyone read so many app reviews? Well, I was on a mission. I wanted to learn more about our users and what they thought about our product.

Yes, we run user studies at Dropbox, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear from people across the globe. I wanted to read their actual words — tirades, triumphs, and all.

Looking back at this experience, I have to say it was incredibly humbling. I learned new things about our users that I never would’ve learned otherwise.

. . . .

1. People just want to be heard

The first thing that jumped out at me while reading these reviews was that people had such strong opinions about our app. As I scrolled from review to review, I noticed people using a whole lot of superlatives—words like mostbest, and worst popped up again and again.

. . . .

After crunching the numbers, I found that over 70% of our app reviews were either 5-star or 1-star reviews. Over two-thirds of reviewers either loved or hated our app.

Why is it that people tend to give extreme ratings? There are a few theories that try to explain extreme responding, but I like to think that people on the internet are just passionate about voicing their opinions.

People want to be heard, and giving a 1-star or 5-star rating adds oomph to your opinion.

. . . .

2. People want to know what’s going on

A little over a year ago, we stopped writing release notes for our iOS and Android apps. Instead, we used a generic message about how we “regularly release updates.” Although we wanted to write release notes, there were a bunch of internal reasons that made it difficult for us to keep writing them.

You might be thinking, “Who the heck reads release notes anyway?” Well, it turns out a lot of people do. After we stopped writing release notes, 12% of reviewers complained about our generic release notes. That’s more than one in every ten reviews!

. . . .

5. Ratings differ a lot by country

Our Dropbox app is available in over 100 countries. Except for the UI language, the app is pretty much the same in every country.

Because it’s the same app, you’d expect the ratings to be roughly the same in every country, right? Well, it turns out our ratings are pretty different in each country.

Let’s look at our iOS app, for example. In the United States, we have roughly the same amount of 5-star reviews as 1-star reviews. But in Japan, we have almost twice as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews. In Brazil, it’s flipped—we have a lot more 5-star reviews than 1-star reviews.

Link to the rest at Medium

The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

From Publishers Weekly:

The fourth floor of the New York Times Building, where the eponymous paper’s newly-formed Books Desk keeps its nest, is, somewhat appropriately, under construction. One side of the floor is blocked off with yellow barricade tape. On the other side, the books team, led by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, is undergoing renovations of its own.

Those changes began last August, when the newsroom leadership decided that the paper’s books coverage, both in print and for the web, should be centralized to one desk. Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

With the choice to combine books sections made, another choice was inevitable: how to combine. “You could say, ‘Let’s just take these three separate sections—which, again, were really derived from a print newspaper era—and shove them together and continue coverage as-is, coordinating more,’” Paul said. “Or you could pause and take a moment and say, ‘If you were starting from scratch and weren’t just pushing these three sections together, what would New York Times books coverage look like?’”

The paper opted for the latter, and began the process of discovering what that coverage would look like by expanding Paul’s duties from running the Book Review to overseeing all books coverage at the paper.

. . . .

[A]s Paul put it, “this is one of the cases in which centralizing and consolidating is not reduction. It’s expansion. Obviously, we need the staff to be able to carry that out.” That has meant bringing on faces both fresh and well-known at the Times over the course of the past year, including deputy editor of books features Laura Marmor (from the paper’s Styles section), Susan Ellingwood as news and features editor (from Opinion), digital staff writer Concepción de Léon (from Glamour magazine), fact-checker and occasional writer Lovia Gyarke (from the New Republic), and Book Review staff editor Lauren Christensen (from Harper’s Bazaar), among others. Earlier this month, senior editor Parul Sehgal, a PW alumnus, joined Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as a daily critic in the wake of the departure of longtime chief critic Michiko Kakutani—one of many writers at the Times to recently take a buy-out. Kakutani’s role will not be filled.

Once Jones was on board, she and Paul, along with the research wing of the Times, set out to investigate what current and prospective readers of the paper, both in New York City and elsewhere, wanted to see in terms of coverage. That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

In short, the duo discovered the need for a paradigm shift in terms of how they were approaching the books that came across the Books Desk.

“It used to be that a book would come in and we’d say, ‘Should we review this or not?’” Paul said. “Now the book comes in and we say, ‘Should we cover this or not, and if so, what should that coverage be? What is the best way to tell this story, regardless of the medium?’”

. . . .

As for the Times bestseller lists—which, famously, are governed by an algorithm that the paper’s reporters and editors know nothing about—Paul maintains that publishers and authors (whom, she stressed, comprise only a subsection of the Book Review’s audience) were the only readers who showed any particular unhappiness about the axing earlier this year of such rankings as the mass market and graphic novel lists. She said that the Books Desk as a whole is providing a similar function for its readers in what she believes are much better ways.

“Many readers of the print Book Review don’t like flipping through ten pages of lists,” Paul said. “We’re going to have some kind of ‘new and noteworthy’ column [in the redesign], which is, frankly, a much better way to find out what’s new, where there’s actual description and an image of the book and a much more useful sense of what the book is about than a teeny little microdescription on a bestseller list.”

. . . .

But other growing categories, like e-book only and self-published books, will not be covered. “Frankly, many, many, many books have been thoroughly vetted and edited and worked on collaboratively, and we only review about 1% of those books,” Paul said. “For our editors to pay attention to the number of books that are coming out from every big publisher all the way down to the smallest indie publisher, and for them to do that job well, is job enough.”

. . . .

And the industry will, Paul insists, be there in 12 years for the Times to cover, undoubtedly in newer ways. The drumbeat of doom and gloom that accompanies the day-to-day existence of the book industry is, she noted, perennial. But as far as she’s concerned, that industry—like the paper that houses the Books Desk that covers it—is anything but failing.

“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative,” Paul said. “People looked at retailing, they said, ‘It’s dead, it’s gone, it’s done.’ And yet independent bookstores are thriving. Amazon is getting into the retail space. This could be a new area of growth. I don’t feel worried.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says any proper “Books Desk” in 2017 would have at least one person, and likely more than one person, located in Seattle, which is where the real center of the U.S. book business is and will be for at least the next several years.

PG notes that Amazon is mentioned only one time in the OP, and only because Amazon has opened a few physical bookstores.

At times New York City seems like a very provincial place.

What the Departure of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

From New York Magazine:

Except for the few people who were privy to Michiko Kakutani’s growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic, most readers were surprised by her decision last month to take a buyout after 38 years at the New York Times. But one book publicist did have a premonition a week before the announcement. She had emailed Kakutani about a controversial political book for the early fall, which was technically under embargo, and hadn’t heard back with a request for an early copy. Books that break news are zealously guarded from most reporters and critics, but when Kakutani asked, you just mailed it off and bit your nails waiting for the verdict.

It’s usually overreaching to call any critic’s departure the end of an era, and Kakutani’s writing career isn’t over at all: This week she signed a multiple-book deal with Crown’s Tim Duggan Books. The first book, published next year, will be a controversial political book of her own, a cultural history of “alternative facts” titled The Death of Truth. But an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me. Her column was a gauntlet no major author could escape, a maker of new stars (Zadie Smith, Alice Sebold, Jonathan Franzen) and punisher of old (Mailer, Updike, Franzen). And as she grew into the job, she became more legend than human, less knowable the more we got to know her. Famously private and therefore ripe for rumors (she’s dating Paul Simon! No, Woody Allen! No, she doesn’t exist!), given to quirks that made her a figure of snark (overusing the word limn, writing in the voice of Holden Caulfield), she attained a status in New York somewhere between Edmund Wilson and Dr. Zizmor. White male writers derided her for bashing their books, though Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was terrified of her, too. Kakutanied became a verb. But whatever was said about her, which was a lot, the one thing you couldn’t say was that her judgment didn’t matter.

. . . .

Meanwhile, the Times became a tougher place for critical gods. Lone wolves hurling thunderbolts from their garrets gave way to affable co-critics doing online chats, TimesTalks, and video clips, writing personal essays and exploring their own biases. Change has been especially swift in books. Last year, Pamela Paul, editor of the Sunday Book Review, was directed to consolidate the paper’s three separate book fiefdoms — the Review, the print daily reviews, and publishing news — under one print-and-online department. Each of the three daily critics was generally reduced to one review per week (though asked to supplement with essays). Important books that used to be reviewed in both the daily and the Review now usually get only one at-bat, and, as at the Book Review under Paul, there is a move toward appreciations, Q&As, genre roundups, and hot-take debates.

Lead critics are going out of style across the paper; there are now “co-chief critics” in art, theater, and film, and after Kakutani’s departure, no book critic will have the right of first refusal. (Dwight Garner will review on Tuesdays, when the biggest books are published, followed by more recent arrival Jennifer Senior and new third critic Parul Sehgal.) Critics now meet with editors to brainstorm new elements and submit their pitches to the will of the collective. It’s a sea change for the daily, where critics had barely interacted with either editors or each other, and where, per two sources, Kakutani had sometimes been allowed to choose her editors and even copy editors. “For a very long time, Michi got her way,” says someone close to the situation, “until very recently people started pushing back in a big way, and I think that was part of her leaving.”

Link to the rest at New York Magazine

The OP reminded PG that New York City is really a lot of gossipy small towns. In the particular small town in which the OP is set, everybody knows the book critic pecking order and is obsessed by the reviewer who is at the top of that pecking order and every word she writes.

Similarly, the residents of this particular New York small town keep up with the latest gossip about the Times – who’s up and who’s down, what so-and-so said about whoever.

PG has traveled to New York City dozens of times, most on business and a few times for pleasure. Generally speaking, he has enjoyed those visits (particularly when someone else is paying his expenses), so he’s not a New York hater.

But PG doesn’t think New York is the most important place in the world and he absolutely knows that, while some smart people live in New York, the large majority live elsewhere. Since he is an attorney, PG also knows some very good (and some very bad) attorneys practice in New York, but most very good attorneys practice somewhere else.

Without question, New York is a special city. But so is Chicago. And Los Angeles and Dallas and Atlanta and Miami and Denver and Seattle and San Francisco. Plus London, Paris, Brussels, Venice, Florence, Rome, etc. (PG admits a bias in favor of Italian cities.) Like the children in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, almost every city is above average.

A final comment from P.J. O’Rourke:

I live in New Hampshire. We’re in favor of global warming. Eleven hundred more feet of sea-level rises? I’ve got beachfront property. You tell us up there, ‘By the end of the century, New York City could be underwater,’ and we say, ‘Your point is?’

The Funnel Theory of Book Reviews

From The Writing Cooperative:

I read books.

Many, many books….about 125 a year.

Some are pre-release review copies. I read them and post my honest review on amazon, Goodreads and wherever else the author has specified. My favorite guidance from an author was to post my most forthright and honest review prior to release date because any review is better than none.

During a dynamic seminar by Gabriela Pereira, she talked about her stance on book reviews: she doesn’t do them. She is also a prodigious reader with wide-ranging interests and deep expertise. Her view is that if she posted reviews, they would have to be what she thought of the good, the bad, and the ugly — and she doesn’t want to do that. If she did not post negative book reviews along with the positive ones, she reasons that you won’t be able to trust her integrity, intelligence, and discernment: when every book is brilliant, no book is brilliant — obscuring the truly remarkable, important books of brilliance. (Plus, she is a profoundly kind, compassionate, and encouraging person.)

. . . .

While I finish reading approximately 125 books a year, that is not the total number of books that I eagerly borrow from the library or clutch to my chest in bookstores, swap meets, and other venues.

Many, many books don’t make the cut.

The cut is not a well-developed, profoundly considered benchmark. A book makes the cut when I am lost in the story, captivated by characters, laughing out loud in quiet public spaces, or weeping through every tissue. It is a lively experience, me and the words on the page, the story enticing, inspiring, and urging me to think, to feel, to imagine differently than I ever have before. This relationship with the book extends to all genres, all types of fiction and nonfiction alike.

. . . .

My book reviews tend to be positive, because I don’t read books that don’t work for me. It’s a big world with all kinds of readers; what doesn’t draw me in may be the best possible experience for someone else. Let them read it, review it, and attract readers who like that kind of story.

Link to the rest at The Writing Cooperative

What Happened to the Negative Music Review?

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.

Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.

Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.

“It’s actually news at this point when an album does get a bad review,” says Dan Ozzi, a writer at VICE’s music site, Noisey.

The dearth of negative music reviews is due to a number of factors. In the digital era, outlets covering music have become decentralized with fewer dominant players and more outlets running reviews. That’s helped create a new power dynamic between pop stars and the press—one where stars are less dependent on critics and critics are more eager to please artists.

Reviewers generally herd together—especially in praise of megastars like Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift—instead of dissenting or championing less-known artists. With shrinking staff, growing competition and limited space, publications may simply not write about a bad album at all, says Jim Merlis, a veteran publicist who has worked with Nirvana and the Strokes.

A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.

“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”

. . . .

Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other.

. . . .

Public shaming on social media can dissuade critics from being negative. While discussions between critics and angry artists once were private, now they are public, with pop stars sometimes haranguing critics on Twitter. Even without an artist prodding them, fans can attack a writer online. A critic being paid $75 for a quick review may seek to avoid being berated for a week on the Internet, critics say.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter

From Vulture:

Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social-media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons — sometimes before anybody’s even read them.

. . . .

The Black Witch, a debut young-adult fantasy novel by Laurie Forest, was still seven weeks from its May 1 publication date, but positive buzz was already building, with early reviews calling it “an intoxicating tale of rebellion and star-crossed romance,” “a massive page-turner that leaves readers longing for more,” and “an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice.”

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

The Black Witch centers on a girl named Elloren who has been raised in a stratified society where other races (including selkies, fae, wolfmen, etc.) are considered inferior at best and enemies at worst. But when she goes off to college, she begins to question her beliefs, an ideological transformation she’s still working on when she joins with the rebellion in the last of the novel’s 600 pages. (It’s the first of a series; one hopes that Elloren will be more woke in book two.)

It was this premise that led Sinyard to slam The Black Witch as “racist, ableist, homophobic, and … written with no marginalized people in mind,” in a review that consisted largely of pull quotes featuring the book’s racist characters saying or doing racist things. Here’s a representative excerpt, an offending sentence juxtaposed with Sinyard’s commentary:

“pg. 163. The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”

Yes, you just read that with your own two eyes. This is one of the times my jaw dropped in horror and I had to walk away from this book.

. . . .

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release. Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

. . . .

The harm Mimi describes is central to campaigns like the one against The Black Witch, which are almost always waged in the name of protecting vulnerable teens from dangerous ideas. These books, it’s claimed, are hurting children.

. . . .

Dramatic as that sounds, it’s worth noting that my attempts to report this piece were met with intense pushback. Sinyard politely declined my request for an interview in what seemed like a routine exchange, but then announced on Twitter that our interaction had “scared” her, leading to backlash from community members who insisted that the as-yet-unwritten story would endanger her life. Rumors quickly spread that I had threatened or harassed Sinyard; several influential authors instructed their followers not to speak to me; and one librarian and member of the Newbery Award committee tweeted at Vulture nearly a dozen times accusing them of enabling “a washed-up YA author” engaged in “a personalized crusade” against the entire publishing community (disclosure: while freelance culture writing makes up the bulk of my work, I published a pair of young adult novels in 2012 and 2014.) With one exception, all my sources insisted on anonymity, citing fear of professional damage and abuse.

None of this comes as a surprise to the folks concerned by the current state of the discourse, who describe being harassed for dissenting from or even questioning the community’s dynamics. One prominent children’s-book agent told me, “None of us are willing to comment publicly for fear of being targeted and labeled racist or bigoted. But if children’s-book publishing is no longer allowed to feature an unlikable character, who grows as a person over the course of the story, then we’re going to have a pretty boring business.”

Another agent, via email, said that while being tarred as problematic may not kill an author’s career — “It’s likely made the rounds as gossip, but I don’t know it’s impacting acquisitions or agents offering representation” — the potential for reputational damage is real: “No one wants to be called a racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That stink doesn’t wash off.”

Link to the rest at Vulture

On some days, PG feels like he’s living

Watership Frown

From The Literary Hub:

BACK IN 1974, THE NEW YORK TIMES‘ RICHARD GILMAN WASN’T OVERLY ENTHUSED BY RICHARD ADAMS’ BELOVED RABBIT ADVENTURE STORY

. . . .

“The impulse to make animals represent or incarnate human significances is of long standing in literature, going back at least as far as Aesop. For whatever reason, English literature has for scene time been especially lavish in the granting to animals of human properties: speech, humor, moral values, histories. One distinction of this kind of writing is that while it is mostly directed toward children, adults have enjoyed the best of it as much as children and sometimes more: Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, surely, but also Kipling, A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, even Beatrix potter.

I doubt that Richard Adams’s Watership Down is really aimed at young children, despite his having said that it arose from impromptu stories he used to tell his small daughters. I can’t imagine many readers under 13 or 14, an age when the lines between juvenile and adult fiction begin to blur, having the patience and grasp of extended allegorical strategies to persevere to the end of a 426‐page epic about a community of rabbits. And while older teen‐agers may well enjoy it, I suspect that this tour de force, the Iliad and Odyssey of Oryctolagus cuniculus, is going to find its true audience mainly among the people who have made a cult of Tolkien, among ecology‐minded romantics and all those in need of a positive statement, not too subtle but not too blatant either, about the future of courage, native simplicity, the life‐force, and so on.

I don’t mean to be condescending. Watership Down is in some ways a delightful book, at times an affecting one. But faced with the extraordinary praise given the book in England, one has to draw back some distance. Lacking the high wit and imaginative force of Alice in Wonderland or the triumphant (if occasionally purple) lyricism of The Wind in the Willows, the book seems to me a good deal less than the ‘classic’—with the implication in the word of settled universal appeal—that British commentators have so reflexively proclaimed it.

. . . .

“As in all such fiction, the plausibility issues from the detail and consistency with which the animal life is rendered, and above all from the resemblances we can discern to aspects of our own lives. To this end Adams offers a remarkable wealth of information on rabbit existence and wisely concentrates on matters of sustenance, living arrangement, behavior toward other animals, and the like.

“But as anthropomorphic fantasy replaces observation (the book is in an actual area of Berkshire, England, and Adams is particularly fine on landscapes and flora, weathers and seasons) he sees fit to give rabbits a folklore and folk‐heroes, a mythology complete with creationmyth and, finally, a language …  If I remember correctly, the great writers of animal fiction let their characters unselfconsciously speak the authors’ own languages, and this is proper because the imaginative act is complete once the literary decision has been made to allow animals to speak in words; to let them use their own worth, their own verbal language, is to tempt the pathetic fallacy beyond its acceptable limits. This may seem a small point, especially since the Lapine is a very minor element of the rhetoric, brit I think it symptomatic of what is wrong with Watership Down, or rather what keeps it from being wholly right.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

When Should We Ignore Criticism?

From freeCodeCamp:

A fairly well-known and respected graphic designer once openly criticized something I had written and shared publicly. He did a poor job with his feedback however, as his only remark—in its entirety—was: “This guy doesn’t get it.”

The feedback stung, but it also made me question the designer’s intention and understanding of what he was criticizing.

“This guy doesn’t get it.” What was the “it” he was referring to exactly? How might I begin learning how to “get” whatever “it” was? What could I do to improve and become as seemingly aware and insightful as the critic? He failed to provide any answers. His criticism was hurtful and loud, but ultimately useless.

Of course criticism is important: it can expose us to perspectives we weren’t aware of, uncover flaws in our work, and help us identify areas for learning and growing. Criticism can be generative and help us create a more complete picture of whatever it is we’re trying to do. But some criticism, while obnoxiously loud, will lack any real substance.

Knowing when to tune-in and probe or when to ignore criticism is valuable. It will save you time, help you avoid headaches and heartaches, and get you to a place where you’re growing and producing good work rather than obsessing over the impossible pursuit of perfection.

In his book Antifragile Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

“When you take risks, insults by small men, those who don’t risk anything, are similar to barks by nonhuman animals; you can’t feel insulted by a dog.”

In my example story, this once noble designer may have had some great years of experience, but if the only guidance he can muster to a fellow designer is: “you don’t get it,” he’s wasting his time. He wasn’t helping me, or any of his dutiful followers, just barking like an obnoxious dog.

When you hear or give criticism you must consider whether it’s additive or generative—is it offering anything that can be built on?—or is it neutral or subtractive?

If I had listened to the criticism—if I had taken the words to heart and believed that I wasn’t “getting it,” if I had done anything because of the criticism—I’d be no better off. Absolutely unchanged. Because I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue as to any reason the criticism might be true. What was the argument to be made against whatever “it” was I wasn’t getting? What was the way forward, toward understanding?

Link to the rest at freeCodeCamp

When tweeters attack: why do readers send authors their bad reviews?

From The Guardian:

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. It’s a simple enough rule that most of us learned as young children. So why is it that some readers seem incapable of holding back from telling an author that they didn’t like their book?

It is a lesson one reader might have heeded before addressing the writer Nina Stibbe with some feedback on her 2013 novel Love, Nina: “My #bookgroup really not loving #lovenina. Voted it 1.3 (out of 10). Our lowest EVER score in 5 years and 60 books. Sorry @ninastibbe.”

Aside from the score – how on earth did they reach that .3? – the “sorry” makes it sound like Stibbe was on tenterhooks for her feedback. She wasn’t. But she did retweet the comment, much to the amusement of fellow writers who then shared their experiences of similar reader over-shares. The Latte Years author Philippa Moore’s experience was typical. “I was tagged in an ‘I won this book, didn’t like it, gave it to my mum’ Instagram post once,” she said. “I was like WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW THAT?”

. . . .

Every author I know has been tagged by readers like this. Usually the reader announces they have reviewed the author’s latest novel. Only it’s a vicious review, awarding two stars (one for arriving on time). Why would they announce that to the author?

Crime writer Alex Marwood says snippy comments directed at her come through her Facebook page, which is meant to be for fans. One reader kindly told her she was “a craptastic author”. Another delighted in telling her about a scathing Amazon review (since removed), which Marwood later printed off and framed.

What is telling is that in almost every case – including that of Stibbe – the reader removes their original comment soon after it has reached its target. Could sudden self-awareness be at work? It is as hard to fathom as it is to know why they tagged the author in the first place.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

One-star review activism is still a contentious issue on Amazon and elsewhere

From TeleRead:

We’ve had a lot to say on the subject of one-star reviews over the last few years. Consumers have used them to protest practices they didn’t like, be they windowing the publication of an ebook, applying unfriendly DRM to video games, or even double-dipping on Lord of the Rings DVD releases.

Beyond that, organized rating or voting campaigns have become a favorite tool for online activists, be they Gamergaters who want to smear the works of feminists whom they loathe (or feminist movies like the Paul Feig Ghostbusters remake), Sad or Rabid Puppies who want to influence or trash the Hugo Awards respectively, Greenpeace downrating Amazon’s Fire phone, or even the wags who tried to force a British government agency to name its newest research vessel “Boaty McBoatface.”

The Hollywood Reporter has the story of the latest such incident to make the news. The Promise, a movie about the controversial Armenian genocide during World War I, has seen its Internet Movie Database listing receive 100,000 1-star votes as the result of a campaign by those who would deny there was a genocide at all. IMDB has said that there’s not a lot they can do, and even with the filmmakers organizing their own campaign to vote the movie back up, it’s still only ranked at 5 stars on IMDB (4.2 when the article was written).

. . . .

Given how much has already been said about the added difficulty of discovering new works online, activists gaming the ratings for ideological reasons is not going to make it any easier. In the end, it’s going to be up to sites that allow review rankings to figure out their own way of dealing with this issue.

 

Link to the rest at TeleRead

A question occurred to PG while he was reading the OP.

Has any author who is the target of organized negative review campaigns ever inserted an explanation of what’s happening with his/her reviews in the book’s description? Something like, “A group calling itself Friends of Dogs has organized a protest against my books because they portray cats in a positive manner. Many of the one-star reviews of my books are part of that protest.”

On the one hand, it might help potential readers understand that some of the reviews are not really about the book’s content. On the other hand, it might spur protesters to even more extreme actions.

Confessions of a paid Amazon review writer

From Digiday:

Many marketing jobs are far from glamorous. Take those toiling in the black market for positive reviews on Amazon.

Merchants have historically offered writers on Amazon free products or services in exchange for positive online write-ups. The practice became so rampant that Amazon updated its community guidelines last October to remove incentivized reviews. But still, many retailers are trying to get around the new policy, according to one top-ranked Amazon reviewer.

. . . .

How does one become an influential Amazon reviewer in the first place?
I have been reviewing on Amazon for a few years, sporadically, but only in the past year have I been doing it seriously. That is because I suddenly broke into the top 10,000 reviewers and then began quickly climbing up. At that point, I decided to see how far up I could get. [She made it to top 50.] Once I got into the top 10,000, vendors started to send me requests to review their products. At that time, it was acceptable for a vendor to send you their product for free in exchange for a review so long as you made it clear in the review that you had received the product in exchange for the review.

What is the most expensive item you have received for free in exchange for reviews?
I would say a Bluetooth speaker that is worth $50 or so.

. . . .

Did anything change after Amazon’s crackdown last October?
Prior to the crackdown, vendors could provide you with an item for free so that you could review it for them. Since that policy change, vendors are not allowed to do that [other than for books], and reviewers are not allowed to accept items for free in exchange for a review. So, if one was reviewing in order to get free items to review, it affects them a great deal. I know that a top reviewer was removed by Amazon recently all of a sudden, for no reason.

. . . .

Are brands trying to get around Amazon’s crackdown?
Some still ask me to go around it. I get dozens of requests to review products every week, some from vendors who do not seem to be aware of the policy change, and others from vendors who are clearly aware of the policy change and are asking me to do something underhanded to violate Amazon’s policy, so that they can get their product into my hands so that I will review it.

What do you mean by “something underhanded?”
Here is an example that I received recently. The seller is telling me to buy the product on Amazon, and it will reimburse me through PayPal, “so it will be a verified purchase review.” Or a seller suggests I order the product through Amazon, then request to return it and receive the refund but keep the product: “After you receive the product, then you apply for a refund but do not need to return product. We will refund your full payment. So you do not have to spend any fees for this product and will enjoy the rapid distribution of Amazon.” This is the most ridiculous, and dishonest, thing that a vendor has asked me to do. In addition, I have had vendors who track me down and message me on Facebook.

Link to the rest at Digiday and thanks to E.M. for the tip.